South Africa

Does Classical Liberalism Have a Chance in South Africa?

The long-ruling African National Congress is on its way to losing power, but could go with the "Zimbabwe option."


Last week, the Cato Institute hosted a policy forum with Herman Mashaba, a self-made millionaire businessman and libertarian, who serves as the executive mayor of South Africa's largest city, Johannesburg. Reason interviewed him shortly after Mashaba's political party, the Democratic Alliance, unseated the African National Congress in a number of South African metropolitan areas during the 2016 local elections. Since then, Mashaba has made some progress in tackling corruption and failing public service delivery in Johannesburg, but he has his work cut out for him.

Over the last 23 years, South Africa has been run by a tripartite alliance consisting of African nationalists (the African National Congress), communists (the South African Communist Party) and trade unionists (the Congress of South African Trade Unions). Since 1994, the government has done some good. Millions of houses, for example, have been built and either given or sold (at a heavy discount) to poor Africans. Drinking water and electricity were delivered to shantytowns and far-flung rural areas.

Being a relatively rich country, South Africa could afford to finance public works out of the general tax revenue. In normal countries, people buy houses (including piped water and electricity) with the money they earn in the market place. Providing jobs to the populace, alas, is something that governments in general and South African government in particular are very bad at doing.

The country is in a recession and the overall unemployment rate is 36 percent. Close to 50 percent of South Africans between the ages of 15 and 34 are unemployed. In the last 23 years, incomes per person rose by about 1 percent per year. In neighboring Botswana, they rose (cumulatively) by over 80 percent.

Over the same time period, life expectancy in Botswana rose by 7 years. It declined by 5 years in South Africa. Both countries were hard hit by HIV/AIDS, but whereas the government of Botswana did everything it could to stop the spread of the disease, the government of South Africa denied the link between HIV and AIDS and actively hindered the distribution of anti-retroviral drugs. (It does not help that South Africa also has eighth highest homicide rate in the world.)

The bad news, unfortunately, does not end there. The World Economic Forum in Davos has ranked South Africa's healthcare as 132nd out of 144 countries surveyed. The country's Corruption Perception Index ranking fell from 21st in 1994 to 62nd in 2015. And, according to The Economist, South Africa's education system is "one of the worst in the world."

It is, perhaps, unsurprising that the ANC-led government is increasingly unpopular, with much of its remaining support coming from rural areas, where the least educated and most traditional people live. The question on everyone's mind, therefore, is: What will the ANC do before the next general election in 2019? Will it observe South Africa's democratic Constitution, freedom of the press, and the independence of the courts and of the Electoral Commission?

If so, it will almost certainly be defeated and have to retreat into opposition. A break-up of the tripartite alliance, which is held together by political patronage, would be certain to follow. Or, will the ANC-led tripartite alliance opt for the "Zimbabwe option" and attempt to steal the 2019 election? Either way, expect to hear more from Herman Mashaba, and his principled stance for freedom and classical liberalism in South Africa.